It took a global pandemic for humanity to see how strongly interconnected we are – as people (social ties), as economies (value chains), and in our digital lives. And it is precisely this extensive digital interconnectivity, especially through data, that illustrates the extraordinary digital transformation in our lives.
Today the world is defined by the way in which people, countries and economies are connected to each other, whether through infrastructure or through person-to-person links.
Connectivity has become a major foreign policy tool in today’s international relations – from transport, trade, and environmental technologies to standards and people-to-people contacts.
This interconnectedness also exposes the geopolitical dimension of connectivity. It is increasingly clear that those who invest in, own, govern or determine the standards of connectivity are shaping the world of today, and especially of tomorrow.
These are regional or global actors who take this route to advance their interests and influence the world according to their vision and values.
The European Union is an economic powerhouse. We want to play a role commensurate with this economic clout – to defend our interests and those of our citizens, and to shape a better, fairer, safer and more sustainable world for everyone.
Our European Union is a peace project built on freedom and trust, to connect countries and peoples who share the values of human rights and dignity, the rule of law, fairness and inclusion.
This has spanned the coal and steel markets, the free movement of data, the creation of Euro-regions and energy grids, and the development of communication networks.
Our networks and applications will always be diverse and will always enable freedom because they reflect our democratic communication architecture. They therefore also connect well to other similar democratic systems.
Perhaps the most inspiring example of the EU connecting people is the Erasmus programme.
It is the most successful project for people-to-people connection and one of the most appreciated and emblematic examples of European integration.
There are of course many more daily examples of cross-border trust frameworks, such as the Covid vaccination certificates, ‘roam like at home’, and our framework of trust services and digital signatures (eIDAS) connecting people and businesses.
Trust is an enabler – where trust exists, the networks will exist and will be ready to be connected.
All these achievements have built the European Union. They are the sum of our investments – investments in common projects and in common rules and standards that allow our economies to thrive and that protect our consumers’ and citizens’ rights. And the EU has long been replicating this model of investment beyond our borders. Today, this takes the form of ambitious connectivity partnerships with the countries of South-East Asia, Japan, and most recently India.
Other actors have tabled elaborate and well-publicised connectivity offers. But these offers originate with autocratic regimes, reflecting who they are. They deepen rather than reduce unhealthy dependencies. These dependencies will make building open societies much more difficult.
The European Union has tremendous clout on the international stage – in trade, economic cooperation, development aid and humanitarian action. And we have the budgets to match. We have already initiated a number of connectivity partnerships.
But we need to up our game. This means advancing a comprehensive, well-defined and well-marketed offer that meets our standards and values. In other words, we need to brand and implement a global offer that respects fundamental rights.
These standards must be anchored in trust. Citizens, companies, public and private players and, of course, our partners must have trust in a reliable offer that is underpinned by two non-negotiable pillars: transparency and accountability.
Citizens, not Big Brother
Transparency should be the guiding light of our connectivity offer. In the digital sphere, citizens need to know how, where and by whom their personal data is being used. They should know how the algorithms, with or without the use of artificial intelligence, determine what they see on their social networks or influence their personal choices. Citizens must be in control, not Big Brother.
Transparency must also apply to finance and taxation. A level playing field in the taxation of multinational companies has become crucial for public opinion. But it is also crucial for small and medium-sized enterprises, allowing them to take part in large infrastructure projects alongside the giants. Similarly, putting a price on carbon in international trade will drive greater transparency and fairness in the fight against climate change.
Accountability is also key to building trust. Taxpayers want to know the state budget is being spent or invested wisely, funding projects that meet real needs and respect people’s health, their rights, and the environment. All partners with which we enter into major ventures must be confident of their reliability and predictability. Trust is at the heart of our European values. We could make Trusted Connectivity the most attractive offer of cooperation for all our partners.
Developing a European Trusted Connectivity involves the following steps.
We need to give maximum impetus to our existing connectivity partnerships, while forging new alliances with like-minded partners such as the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and India.
We need to strengthen our cooperation with like-minded partners in international fora such as the G7 and the OECD. Trusted Connectivity should embed resilience as well as the twin transitions into its standards.
We should streamline the EU’s financial capacities available for these projects and continue to align action at EU level with the actions of member states. This will ensure an efficient and holistic Team Europe approach and maximise effectiveness. Grant assistance could leverage funding from international financial institutions and the private sector to help ensure effective, sustainable and financially viable projects.
Identifying the core projects within our partnerships with like-minded countries would be key. The climate, digital, and cybersecurity should rank high on the list of priorities. In the field of infrastructure, we should prioritise feasibility studies on strategic communication corridors to identify projects that are both profitable and beneficial on a supra-regional scale. Our value proposition should also include technology stacks that are open to our partners in the developed and developing world alike to reduce the digital divide between the connected and the under-connected.
To succeed, we need – with like-minded partners and, where appropriate, within the framework of relevant international organisations – to establish common standards, and to facilitate interoperabilities, common investments and assistance mechanisms. The experience and leadership of the European Union in setting and disseminating standards will be an invaluable contribution to this process.
We should thoughtfully brand and promote the EU’s Trusted Connectivity offer.
We need to develop tailor-made offers for our strategic partners: the Western Balkans, the Southern Caucasus, Central Asia, South America and Africa. The launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area offers a historic opportunity to develop major connectivity projects together.
To ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms we believe in, it is imperative that the world’s democracies rally together and act with urgency to respond to the global demand for physical or virtual infrastructure, in particular by providing an alternative to global actors with interests and values that are contrary to our ethics. Trusted Connectivity supplies the framework for consolidating the connectivity agendas of democratic countries.
The EU, alongside its like-minded partners, is perfectly situated to lead this charge, thereby enabling us to navigate the digital and green transformations towards a future that is freer, safer, more prosperous, and more sustainable.